This study is the result of a conversation after church (Thanks, John!), when a brother remarked about people tossing around words like “transfiguration” without ever stopping to wonder what they actually mean. A quick check revealed that the word used by both Matthew and Mark is metamorphoo, whose noun form, transliterated, is recognized by every grade-school science student as “metamorphosis” – what happens when the caterpillar they have carefully fed with leaves, and watched as it spun its cocoon, emerges to their wonder and delight as a beautiful butterfly. It’s still the same critter – but it has been transformed into its intended, mature destiny.
Back at home with my reference books, I was startled to discover that metamorphoo (L/S “to transform, to change”) is used only four times in the entire New Testament: these two references to Jesus on the mountain (Mt.17:2, Mk.9:2), Romans 12:2 speaking of the faithful person’s mind (W.S.#96) being transformed to become capable of understanding and following the Lord’s instructions, and II Cor.3:18, of the process of their/our maturing to reflect the Lord’s own radiance – to be transformed into his very image – God’s original intent (Gen.1:26) at Creation!
How very beautifully that all fits together! Especially in the light added by Luke. Only he, who does not use metamorphoo at all, says anything about the topic of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah: his “departure” (exodos) – yes, the same word as “Exodus”– that was about to be “completed” (pleroun, from pleroo, to complete or to fulfill). This has been traditionally interpreted as a reference to Jesus’ death: but L/S lists no classical references to death for exodos. Only “going out, or the marching forth of a procession or a military expedition” are mentioned. The word occurs only here, in Heb.11:22 (of the historical exodus), and II Pet.1:15, of which the traditional interpretation is also open to question, due to Peter’s subsequent reference to the same event (vv.16-18) as a revelation of Jesus’ glory. I take this to be another of many signposts in the direction of seeing Jesus as focused upon his ultimate defeat not only of death, but of all the forces of evil, which is/was his own mature destiny, rather than the traditional notions of “sacrifice” (W.S. #95). He was “departing” for the ultimate “expedition” – and conquered gloriously!
Of course, once you start tracking a word, one thing invariably leads to another. The English word “transform” also represents another Greek word, metaschematizo, used only five times, which, besides describing a change in a person or thing (L/S), as in Phil.3:21 – “He (Jesus) will transform our body to be like his”, also refers both to disguise and deception (ICor.11:13,14,15), and (I Cor.4:6) to a simple analogous illustration.
“Change”, also, can be for the better or worse. This adds five more Greek words to be considered, most of which seem to be nearly interchangeable, and none of which really dominate. For example, the statements in Hebrews of the necessity of “change” in the priesthood and the law incorporates (Heb.7:12) both metatithemi and metathesis, as does the enigmatic statement (Heb.4:5 and 12:27) of Enoch’s disappearance (traditionally rendered “translated,” which in modern usage refers only to language.)
The complaint about Stephen for “changing the customs Moses established” (Ac.6:14), and the “changing like a garment” of heaven and earth (Heb.1:12), both employ allatto, connected to the adjective allos “other”, which is used of Paul’s wish to “change his voice” (Gal.4:20), and the glorious “change” of the faithful to their resurrection bodies (I Cor.15:51), but also, both separately and in its prefixed form metallatto, of the perversity of those who have rejected the general revelation of God, and “exchanged” it for the worship of idols (Rom.1:23,25,26).
Jude (v.4) uses metatithemi for that “exchange”, and Paul (Gal.1:6) uses it to reprimand the departure of some people from faithfulness.
A change of location or jurisdiction is expressed by both metatithemi (Ac.7:16) and methistemi (Col.1:13, I Cor.13:2), which latter also applied simply to the loss of a job (Lk.16:4, Ac.13:22).
It is probably significant that metaballo, easily the most ambiguous term, is used only once (Ac.28:6), of the people of Melita “changing their minds” about Paul after he was unharmed by the snakebite.
The changes/transformations advocated in the New Testament go far beyond merely abstractly “changing one’s mind” or opinion. This is explored in more detail in W.S.#6, dealing with the call to metanoeo (noeo is the verb form of nous #96). Lexically, metanoeo, metanoia, is also a change of mind – but it is one that involves, like most of the “mind” references in the previous post, the entire re-orientation of one’s life.
One key to that transformation lies in another phrase that appears in several of the references – Rom.12:2, Eph.4:23, Col.3:10: “the renewal of your/our minds” or “understanding”. In Titus 3:5, “renewal” is paired with “regeneration”. Both the Ephesians and Colossians passages call for the “putting off” of one’s former life, in favor of the new – and very different – life in Christ. The mixed tenses of the imperatives and participles imply both decisive, punctiliar action (aorist), and continuous (present) effort.
“Renewal” represents four Greek words, three of which, anakainoo (II Cor.4:16, Col.3:!0), anakainosis (Rom.12:2, Tit.3:5), and anakainizo (Heb.6:6), are related, and one, ananeomai (Eph.4:23) is used only once. L/S records no other meanings for any of these. They are quite parallel to the ideas in II Cor.5:17 referring to a “new creation” and Eph.2:15 and 4:24 to a “new man [person]”.
You may have noticed that all of these references refer to a major alteration in the nature, life, and behavior of individuals or groups – all, that is, except the two instances that initiated this investigation: the use of metamorphoo in the three disciples’ experience with Jesus. Did Jesus himself somehow “change,” there on the mountain? He needed no “transformation” to become what God intended, although Heb.2:10, 5:9,7:28 do speak of his “maturing” (W.S.#13).
I think the key to the discrepancy here may be in Jesus’ charge to his awe-struck companions (Mt.17:9), “Don’t tell anyone the vision (horama)” until after the resurrection. Horama is used 11 times in the New Testament, all but this one in Acts (9:10, 9:12, 10:3, 10:17, 11:5, 12:9, 16:9, 16:10, 18:9) – and all are referring to a supernatural experience imparting information or instructions not available in any other way. I think Peter must have understood it this way, from his comment in II Pet.1:16-18. He asserts that they were privileged to be “eyewitnesses of his magnificence [glory]”. Jesus did not change. His true identity was supernaturally revealed to them (emprothen auton). And this revelation, whether by vision or some other means, is the beginning of the transformation of all who choose to follow him.
“And we all, with faces that have been uncovered, reflecting the Lord’s own radiance, are being transformed [metamorphosed!] into his image, from glory to glory, according to the pattern of the Lord’s spirit”(II Cor.3:18). Every verb form is in the present tense. It is continuously happening, from the beginning of one’s “turning to the Lord” (v.16).
May we continually delight in – and cooperate with! – that metamorphosis!
Thanks be to God!